Q. Our 5 1/2-year-old daughter Heather started walking at 8 months and always has been extremely well-coordinated compared with other children her age. Last weekend we took her ice-skating for the first time and she did quite well.
My husband and I think she could become a championship skater if she practices hard enough, and Heather thinks this is something she'd like to do. We understand that she might have to give up some "normal" activities for children her age, but we are nevertheless ready to go ahead with one-hour lessons five days a week. Our other daughter is 3 years old and doesn't seem interested in skating, so we have decided not to give her any lessons yet.
Do you think we are doing the right thing?
A. No, unequivocally.
It's wonderful that your little girl is blessed with a well-coordinated body and parents who will encourage her in sports, since she is so good in them. When a child builds on her strengths, she strengthens her self-esteem--a child's primary need.
However, it is much too soon to tell if she will really excel in athletics or if she wants sports to be the main focus of her life. She just needs the chance to enjoy sports without going after championships. This would make her (and you) think in terms of winning and losing, which would take away more self-esteem than it ever would give.
Instead, she should grow up knowing she has the right to fail, as well as succeed, like everyone else. She would never get that message if she had to take ice-skating lessons five days a week, practicing "hard enough" to be a championship skater. She's much too young to know what that entails or to make that decision. You want her to enjoy work for the sense of accomplishment it brings, and not to think of it as drudgery that might lead to glory at the end of the road.
By skipping some of the "normal" activities of other children, you also would be denying your child what she needs so much in the middle years: friendships. And you can't have friends at this age without a fair amount of conformity. If your child thinks she's different she will avoid the other children--and they will avoid her--for all children choose friends they think are most like themselves. The one who feels isolated between 7 and 11 often feels isolated for the rest of her life. If this happens, she's likely to blame ice skating--and parents--for the pain.
You would also be setting yourself up for a power struggle. Your daughter might keep on keeping on, but only if you commanded her, and only until she decided to rebel. Even talk of future contests won't be enough to keep her interest. It will be years before she will understand and enjoy the pursuit of goals, and at that point she will want to choose her own.
Finally, there is your own need to see your child as a champion. This is typical of parents. Despite our best intentions, we project our own dreams on our children as if they could make up for our missed chances and lost causes. We see them as we wish we had been, especially that dear, noble experiment: the firstborn. We are sure she is so fine, so perfect, that she can do anything better than anyone else. To hear a parent tell it, the playground leader will be president; the pretty child will be a cover model. The talented child is gifted; the gifted child a genius. It is the same with mechanical--or athletic--ability. Whatever the gift, it is the key not just to happiness but to greatness. We think our children are aimed at the stars--because they are our children.
Some do grow up to reach the top of their profession, but not because we decide what that profession should be or how hard they should work to get there. We only can watch and ache and wait--and remember that a child wants to be supported, not pushed.
Your child would almost surely feel pushed if she had to take five lessons a week in anything. You can, however, help her be a better skater by engaging her in activities that use the same skills--balance and direction.
Joye Newman, a perceptual motor therapist in Glen Echo, believes in games to develop the skills that ice-skating requires--balance and directionality (an understanding of concepts such as under and over, up and down, and in and on). She uses games--and a trampoline--to help awkward children overcome clumsiness, and all children, including the well-coordinated, conquer learning problems such as poor handwriting. The child who benefits is the one who clutches the pencil wrong or is unable to cross the mid-line. This is the one who can't write on the left side of the paper or who, when asked to connect two Xs on the chalkboard, will move her whole body to the side so her arm will move rather than move the arm itself.
The same games that help a learning-disabled child solve these problems will help your child. Her balance will improve if you give her a small sidewalk bike, without training wheels, and if you put a long 2 x 4 in her room or in the hall, resting it on a brick at each end. At this age she can't resist walking on this balancing beam any more than she can walk down the stairs without touching the wall.
You also can suspend a knotted rope from a beam in the basement ceiling for her to climb and swing on (with a mattress on the floor to catch any fall); toss a rope on the floor in a random pattern and have her tiptoe on it--a game to play together, and give her many chances to play in a well-equipped park.
Soccer not only helps a child cross the midpoint but it's also the joy of most 6-year-olds for it boosts both the body and the ego. Almost anyone can kick a ball and in soccer, everyone does. Most of the leagues in this area require their teams to stay small enough so every child can play at least half the time, which lessens the pressure to win.
Swimming is excellent for children, too, for it puts the least stress on the body, and yes, an ice-skating lesson is fine--once a week. That's enough at this age and for a long time to come.